For individuals of all ages, time outdoors is essential. Walking in the daytime, interacting with other individuals, breathing in the fresh air: these activities are necessary to encourage good mental and physical health. A great place to spend time outdoors is on a playground but oftentimes, playgrounds are not accessible for people with disabilities, barring them from being able to enjoy outside activities along with others.
Bennett's Village –– a local non-profit working to build an all-abilities playspace in Charlottesville, VA –– is hoping to provide a space where there are no barriers to play. Though still in phase one of its creation, Bennett’s Village is getting closer and closer to becoming a reality, promoting the notion that inclusivity is wanted and needed by the community. To get a better understanding of what Bennett’s Village is all about, we turned to Kara McClurken, President and Co-founder of Bennett's Village (and Bennett's Mommy!), for an interview.
What is your story? What inspired Bennett's Village?
Bennett’s Village is named after my youngest child, Bennett McClurken-Gibney, a joyous kid who, like most five year olds, loved to play. Unlike most five year olds, Bennett had Spinal Muscular Atrophy –– a genetic disease that causes muscle weakness. He needed technology or a friend to assist when his arms or legs didn’t do what he wanted them to do. In order for him to play independently, he relied upon his power wheelchair.
We quickly learned that most play spaces were not designed for folks like him who use wheels instead of feet to get around. They aren’t designed for folks who need enclosed spaces to stay safe, or those who need different sensory opportunities. There aren’t enough safe pathways with ramps instead of steps for those who use strollers, walkers or other mobility aids. There aren’t enough shady places to sit for those who need rest or places to cool off, and most slides are plastic, which interfere with cochlear implants. Bathrooms aren’t designed for those who need additional space for caregivers or equipment for medical and toileting assistance. Most play spaces aren’t designed for those with low or no vision, or for the deaf and autistic members of our community.
As a result, many cannot go out and safely explore all the positive and wonderful places in their communities. They are left out of playdates and birthday parties and field trips. And the worst part is, because we don’t always see them, we don’t realize how many we are excluding.
What has been the biggest challenge(s) that has come from this project? How have you dealt with these challenges?
I think there are two challenges. The first is explaining why this project’s grand total is $5 million dollars. This is standard for projects of similar sizes and scope across the country. If designing and building truly inclusive play spaces were less expensive, more communities would have them. Designing for everyone means adding electrical outlets to support the charging of medical equipment and communication devices. It requires bathrooms that are big enough to accommodate individuals or families and their companions and their mobility devices or medical equipment. It requires more expensive surfacing materials that can better support those using wheeled or mobility devices. It requires hiring experts with greater training in inclusive design. There are a small number of designers who do this work well and they are in high demand. Traditional play equipment is not inclusive and the structures that are more inclusive tend to take up more space and cost more money. Fewer companies produce the specialized equipment. And it’s not just building a single playground but rather a series of play spaces that take into consideration the many needs for safety and inclusion.
The other challenge we have is that some people are under the impression that we are creating something just for those with disabilities –– when actually, what we are creating is just the opposite. We are creating a space where all can play, where we work to eliminate the barriers that exist in most recreational spaces for truly inclusive play.
What have you learned about yourself after taking this project on? What have you learned about others?
I rely on other people’s expertise and personal experiences. I am coming at this project as a mom who wanted a place where her kid, with his specific disability, could play. There are so many reasons why play spaces are inaccessible. For example, when I started, I didn’t know that plastic slides interfered with cochlear implants. I have to rely on the expertise of others –– whether that’s individuals, families who are unable to fully participate with more traditional playground equipment, or professionals (doctors, therapists, teachers, etc.) who work with those individuals and families.
How has this project been rewarding?
It has been rewarding to hear from community members who tell us how the advocacy and the changes to the landscape are making a difference in their lives. We just put up a communication board at the site, and it has been so gratifying to hear from community members who see the enhanced possibilities for interactions and play.
How will this project impact Charlottesville or even Virginia in general?
Pen Park, the future site of Bennett’s Village, is already considered a regional park. Families like ours who used to drive an hour or two to get to all-abilities playgrounds will come here when they might have gone elsewhere or stayed home. Bennett’s Village will give families who travel long distances to come to the Children’s Hospital something to look forward to before or after their appointments. Parents or grandparents using wheelchairs or other mobility aids will get to play together with their children/grandchildren in ways that may not have been possible in the past.
How can Charlottesville residents help Bennett’s Village? What is the best way to help?
There are many ways to help. Obviously, we need to raise money for the design and creation of specialized equipment and play spaces. Funding is our greatest need. But we also need people at all levels of time commitment to share our story. There are so many in the community who haven’t heard of our project, who could support us by volunteering on committees and connecting us to others in the community. Following us via social media (@bennettsvillage on Instagram or Facebook, linked here) or email, linked here, to stay connected with Bennett’s Village is a great way to start!
Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about Bennett's Village?
Bennett's Village won't just be a place for kids –– all ages and abilities benefit from access to recreational play spaces. Few play spaces are designed with the needs of the older members of our community in mind, but Bennett's Village actively sought out experts in aging when considering the design of the park.
This is also a phased project. Phase one is a treehouse, which will require $500,000 in funding. Once this is completed, we will determine the next steps to reach our larger goal of transforming more than three acres into a truly accessible series of playspaces.
Thank you to Kara McClurken for this insightful interview! We are also trying to make sure the content we suggest is accessible in different ways. As always, if you find barriers or have suggestions please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know so that we can improve.